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Admitted independent contractor psychiatrist is "employee" for immunity purposes

Larry Gettel, Patricia Spencer and Kristie Reh sued the Caro Regional Center and psychiatrist Donald Proulx, arguing that Proulx was negligent when he released Corbin Thomas on a "grounds pass" without supervision.  The Plaintiffs worked at the facility where Corbin was housed beginning in 2003 after being found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.  In 2004, Proulx thought he saw progress in Corbin's treatment and allowed him the unsupervised grounds pass.  Less than three months later, Corbin used the grounds pass to flee the facility, returning with a hammer that he used to attack and severely injure the plaintiffs.

Proulx admitted that he was an independent contractor and not an employee of the facility.  Nevertheless, he and the facility argued that they were immune from negligence because under the "economic reality" test, Proulx should be considered an employee of the Learning Center.  Think of it like this:  The Learning Center wanted to "eat its cake and have it, too."  Proulx would be an employee when it was advantageous, but not when it was inconvenient.

The trial judge gave the defendants summary disposition, holding that no reasonable jury could conclude that Proulx was NOT an employee of the Learning Center, and the three injured people appealed.  In a typical Kirsten Frank Kelly opinion, the Court upheld the summary dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims by use of a handful of fudge words and obfuscations.  According to self-serving testimony of Center administrators quoted in the opinion, the Center "generally treated him the same as any directly employed psychiatrist;" his employment as an admitted contract employee and independent contractor was a "superficial label" that did not control the inquiry; the Center had the authority "to recommend termination of his contract [i.e., it couldn't hire or fire him, but it could make recommendations!];"  Proulx considered part of the staff  [even though he wasn't actually part of it];"  he was "subject to corrective action;" and his was supervisor "did 'not necessarily' assignments...based on whether they were employees or contract psychiatrists." Indeed, the Judges pointed out, Proulx's duties "were 'more or less' the same as" staff psychiatrists....

With this kind of precise evidence and analysis, how can anyone wonder if there was a factual issue to resolve?  How much clearer could the psychiatrist's employment status be?  How can we be left to wonder if the outcome would have been different if Proulx had been seeking to establish employment status in order to recover workers compensation payments or some other benefit that his "employer" wanted to deny him?  It is decisions like this one, and the squishy reasoning used to justify a preferred outcome, which have led legal analysts to call Michigan's appellate courts the most partisan and least respected state judiciary in the nation.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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